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How engineers can attract media interest

Long after the floodwaters have receded and the insurance claims have been settled, what will be the abiding memories of the 2014 winter storms?

Ben Mitchell

Mitchell: Putting across an engineer’s point of view on Sky TV

Battered seafronts, suburban canoeists and submerged streets for sure, but also politicians. Lots of politicians decked out like Atlantic fisherman making political hay while the sun didn’t shine.

And what of the engineers? Well, if they are remembered at all, it will probably be by those that blame them for not solving the crisis, or even for allowing it to happen in the first place.

Just because someone is known in a specialist field they may not be suitable in front of the TV cameras

Because even with this golden opportunity, terrible as it is, the engineers are not necessarily top of the list of the media mandarins searching for talking heads for television.

“Fifty years ago, it would have all been engineers doing this,” says King College London professor of geography David Demeritt. “Now a whole load of sharp-elbowed professions has got in there.

“Ecologists and hydrologists, and I suppose increasingly, economists and policy people like me who think they have something to say and who have sometimes disparaged the role of engineers.

“The big story here,” continues Demeritt, referring to the Somerset Levels, “is that the professions and experts are fairly unified on what needs to be done.” The consensus is to retain the water upstream in the catchment area, keeping the water away from people and property as much as possible.

“And as near as I can figure, that is exactly what they have done,” Demeritt adds. “The strategy has been executed and what thanks do we get? We get rubbished by Eric Pickles on the Sunday television.”

Demeritt is referring to Pickles’ attack on the Environment Agency on the BBC’s recent Andrew Marr Show.

That appearance was the cause of a flurry of angry emails to NCE. “So where was the engineering expert to counter the fatuous, politically motivated and technically incompetent views expressed by communities secretary Eric Pickles on the Andrew Marr Show?” wrote engineer Peter Jones.

“Why isn’t the ICE publicly calling for Pickles’ resignation?” he asked.

“Our institution must do better,” wrote Walsh Group director Andy Stanford.

ICE contribution

So what has the ICE being doing? Well, to be fair, quite a lot. Although the Pickles attack on the Environment Agency grabbed a lot of headlines, engineers have contributed extensively to recent media coverage.

The ICE’s strategy is to provide talking heads from its various “expert panels”, which cover a range of areas including flooding, waste and energy.

“We have been fielding requests for TV interviews for the last six weeks,” explains ICE media relations manager Kate Ison.

When it comes to flooding, the ICE’s go-to-man is vice president David Balmforth. And he has been a busy man - a ubiquitous presence on the nation’s TV and radio news channels, flying the flag for the ICE and the wider profession.

Another engineer to have appeared extensively on television is Peter Brett Associates partner Ben Mitchell. He says the profession needs to find engineers with the right blend of confidence, empathy and credibility.

“We all have strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “But just because someone is known in a specialist field they may not be suitable in front of the TV cameras.”

Mitchell says he does get nervous before an interview, but he believes his work as an expert witness has put him in good stead. “I feel nerves, but then I like nerves; there is nothing I like more than being cross-examined by a clever barrister and standing up for myself. I get a buzz out of it,” he says.

“You need to be prepared to take risks,” he adds. “If someone is going to argue with you, you need to have that confidence of your beliefs and the technical back-up to argue you point. It is not enough to glibly say ‘oh yes dredging is a good thing’. Well, is it?”

What is the definition of an extrovert engineer? One that looks at your shoelaces rather than his own when he talks to you

If the ICE could genetically engineer a TV personality they would do well to begin with taking some DNA from Mitchell. His cousin is actor Jim Broadbent and his engineering roots go back to 1866 when his great-great grandfather set up engineering firm Thomas Broadbent & Son. It is still going today.

As well as being able to stand your ground against the Paxmans of this world, Mitchell thinks there is a need for potential pundits to throw caution to the wind.

“There’s an old joke in which three professions are asked to define the number three. The physicist says its an integer between two and four, the scientist describes it in terms of decimal points and the engineer says: ‘Well three is three, but we better call it nine to be on the safe side.’” Boom boom. Mitchell’s point is that being overly cautious and toeing the company line makes for a boring interview.

“Nobody wants a dry delivery,” he says. “You have to speak with passion. The Environment Agency chaps often just trot out corporate mantra and, bless them, they can’t deliver it passionately; I don’t blame them but it is just the company line.”

Another engineer the ICE may want to tap for DNA is WSP vice president Steve Burrows. He is a veteran with three TV shows under his belt and a new one, Timescanners, starting at the end of the month on National Geographic.

Like Mitchell he too has a joke: “What is the definition of an extrovert engineer? One that looks at your shoelaces rather than his own when he talks to you.

“You have to relate to the audience you are trying to reach,” says Burrows. “You need someone that enjoys what they are doing.”

And the key to getting the general public onside, says Burrows, is to entertain them. Everything else, he says will follow: “The general public doesn’t want to hear about engineers being promoted; we have to see that as being a by-product of entertaining people.

“In my programmes I set out to entertain; not to sell engineering.”

The good news for the ICE is that Burrows believes that “there are plenty of engineers out there that are good story tellers; I am not a rare beast”.

And, while established engineers did step up and do an admirable job in front of the TV cameras and radio mics during the recent storms and floods, Ison is well aware that new blood is needed.

“In the last two or three years, things have really changed. We have had 35 requests from TV production companies in the last year. Sometimes for big sexy projects, but also stuff for daytime TV. It’s a huge part of what we are doing, but its not that easy. We are on to it and making progress.”

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